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Tuesday, 16 November, 1999, 08:57 GMT
Cybersquatting part 2: Giving it a good name

The beauty of the net is that you can find whatever you want.

If you want the Queen, just go to www.royalfamily.co.uk.

If you want the prime minister, go to www.britishestablishment.org.uk.

Or if he's at work, try www.houseofcommons.org.uk.

And if you fancy taking the matter all the way, you can try www.europeancommunity.org.uk.

Well, if you fall for that, you really are a sucker. All those names, and nearly 700 others, lead to a small office in a railway station in County Durham.

Tellingly, you will also find yourself there if you look at www.british-rail.co.uk, www.londonunderground.co.uk, and www.nationalrailenquiries.co.uk.

Although this might sound like a classic case of nicking domain names, it's not quite that simple.

Alex Nelson is the mild-mannered stationmaster who is trying to give cybersquatting a good name. (click here for the previous e-cyclopedia entry - Cybersquatting: Get off my URL)

Unlike conventional cybersquatters, he is not hawking the names around to companies for a fat fee. He is not pretending to be someone he's not, either. And he's quite willing to redirect surfers to the site they were looking for.



As a rail and internet enthusiast, in 1995 he started ringing the country's rail companies telling them they should register their domain names before someone else did.

"We kept phoning people, telling them they really ought to register their name for themselves. But we couldn't get their message through to people."

Worried that some of the best UK rail names would be taken by speculators, and frustrated that companies weren't registering them for themselves, he started buying the names up.

E-cyclopedia
Saying he felt like the little red hen baking her bread, ignored by everyone who would later decide they wanted something to eat, he has spent 45,000 buying up obvious or "guessable" domain names, hoping to catch a proportion of internet traffic.

Then he started offering to rent the names to companies at a nominal price (a few pounds a month). "For big companies, it's not big bucks," he said.

If they pay, he's quids in. If they don't, people will carry on coming to his site - he currently has 6,000 page requests each day. While there, he hopes, some will buy a train ticket from him.



A glimpse of Alex Nelson's site
Sales are sold through Virgin's thetrainline.com; Chester-le-track takes a cut.

Midland Mainline, the company which runs trains from London to the East Midlands, came to an arrangement with Mr Nelson, and rents the site www.midlandmainline from him. Its previous address had been the not-quite-so-obvious mml.rail.co.uk.

That's not to say everyone has been happy. The Post Office told Mr Nelson it wanted www.royal-mail.co.uk, an address he had registered.

But he said they could only have it if they put a golden post box outside his station, and let children post letters to anywhere in the world for free for a year from it.

The Post Office did not play ball, instituted legal proceedings, and Mr Nelson gave way. The address now points where you might expect.

It all puts Nominet - the organisation which registers ".co.uk" names - in an interesting situation.

Spokeswoman Anne Bishop said that with half a million such names now on the books, and new registrations running at 80,000 a month, the proportion of cybersquatting problems was tiny.

Most problems that arose were innocent confusions. But for more difficult cases, Nominet operated a dispute resolution process, or could pass the matter to a panel of lawyers for their opinion.



Marks & Spencer: Fought for marksandspencer.com
Or companies could go straight to the courts, she said.

The judgement in the One in a Million case, which recovered the names marksandspencer.com, sainsburys.com, bt.org and virgin.org for the respective companies, does not make happy reading for cybersquatters. (The defendants had offered to sell the name burgerking.co.uk for 25,000 plus VAT.)

So when it comes down to it, why should Alex Nelson think of himself any differently from a speculator trying to make money out of someone else's name?

"The main thing is that we are a lot friendlier," he said. "We're a worker's co-operative, and we're here for keeps."

And, he points out, he's not demanding exploitative amounts for the names and is willing to redirect anyone looking a particular company. He's just biding his time, watching his visitor counter clock up the hits.

"We're playing a waiting game," he said.

Proof - if it was needed - that he's in the railway business.

The E-cyclopedia can be contacted at e-cyclopedia@bbc.co.uk

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15 Oct 99 | e-cyclopedia
Cybersquatting: Get off my URL
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